Such noise! So many voices!
Steven Toussaint investigates the contemporary New Zealand poetry scene, and discovers much more than a tale of two cities.
Earlier this year, the Aotearoa/New Zealand literary community celebrated nearly twenty years of its Poet Laureateship with a sold-out gala event in Wellington. The laureates took turns at the podium, in the order of appointment, to read selections from their work, but also to reflect on the laureateship itself, on lives dedicated to poetry. In his opening remarks, the inaugural laureate Bill Manhire joked about English laureates like Robert Southey who ‘turned out poems for royal birthdays’. ‘Fortunately in New Zealand,’ he added, ‘there’s no requirement or expectation that you produce poems for the Queen or Prime Minister.’
Manhire’s remarks and the reading that followed presented a picture of the New Zealand laureate as public servant of the average reader—maybe even one uninitiated to the mysteries of poetry. This isn’t to denigrate the position, only to demystify it a little,tempering some of the pomp and circumstance.
‘New Zealanders are doubtful in an entirely pragmatic way,’ Manhire wrote in a 2011 essay for World Literature Today. ‘They want to give most things, including poems, a bit of a kick to find out just what they’re for.’ He characterises recent New Zealand poetry as ‘very happy with daily life’, and points to fellow laureate Jenny Bornholdt as a master of quotidian lyrics ‘where tradesmen call, children and recipes and baking are often on your mind, and neighbors behave in slightly quirky ways.’ Bornholdt enjoys an immense influence over the current landscape, he suggests, because ‘many of us recognise our lives in her poems.’
Milestones like the ‘Circle of Laureates’ event naturally lead to reflection on the state of New Zealand poetry today. A cursory glance at the numbers would indicate good health. New Zealand’s three major University presses—Auckland, Otago, and Victoria—published 22 poetry collections in 2015 alone, and small, independent poetry publishing has seen a veritable renaissance in recent years, with start-ups Haunui Press, Hue & Cry, and Mākaro Press joining veteran outfits Seraph Press and Steele Roberts.
New Zealand National Poetry Day is now in its 19th year; its new sponsor, Phantom Billstickers, building on its 2009 ‘Poetry Posters’ initiative, is already planning over 80 events and readings around the country in advance of the day itself, Friday August 26th. New Zealand’s longest-running arts and literary journal, Dunedin-based Landfall (founded in 1947 by Charles Brasch), remains a stalwart reviewer and publisher of poetry, as does Wellington-based Sport; the Auckland-based New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC) continues to record and archive the voices of New Zealanders for posterity; and recent years have seen the publication of landmark anthologies 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (2010), The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011), and Essential New Zealand Poems (2014). The $12,000 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, created though a legacy from the Sarah Broom estate in 2014, has attracted nationwide excitement, with undergraduate students and national laureates alike submitting their work. (The winner of the 2016 contest, judged by Paul Muldoon, was Elizabeth Smither.)
‘I’d say there is a tremendous energy in New Zealand poetry,’ poet Anna Jackson told me, ‘and it is with the younger writers between, say, twenty to thirty-five years of age, who are running little magazines, printing chapbooks, hosting readings and spoken word performances. I’ve been to readings where you can’t get in the door and people are listening from the footpath outside.’
Poet Paula Green agrees: ‘With poetry not getting much attention in print media these days… poets are furnishing mobile hubs, boutique presses, pop-up events’, endeavours which Green applauds as ‘constantly eroding the stability of a national poetry canon’. It is fitting, perhaps, that the go-to destination for New Zealand poetry news, reviews, and interviews is not an institutional site with dedicated funding, but a labour of love: Green’s own website New Zealand Poetry Shelf.
A month after the laureate gala, I sat in the office of Fergus Barrowman, publisher-at-large of Victoria University Press and the MC for the event. We shared morning tea at a table cluttered with stacks of manuscripts and unedited proofs. As VUP is one of the primary publishers of poetry in New Zealand, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that one of those piles contained the first collection of a laureate to come.
‘When I was looking at the laureate line-up and preparing,’ Barrowman told me, ‘I realised there were three generations of poets represented, and a pretty well-selected “A team”.’ He noted that three laureates—Vincent O’Sullivan, C.K. Stead, and the late Hone Tuwhare—published their first books in the mid-sixties, within a year or two of each other. ‘Then you have Bill [Manhire], Ian [Wedde], and Cilla [McQueen] debuting in the 70s. And Michele [Leggott] and Jenny [Bornholdt] both published their first books after 1985.’
What the laureates have in common, despite differences of age and allegiance, is a shared inheritance: the self-conscious literary nationalism of the 1930s, when poets such as Allen Curnow, R.A.K. Mason, and Dennis Glover sought explicitly to define and enact a distinctively New Zealand style; and the romanticism of the 1950s, when James K. Baxter looked to poetry to repair the rift between Māori and Pākehā histories. But for poets today, learning ‘the trick of standing upright here’, as a well-known poem by Curnow has it, no longer requires such a deliberate performance of national identity.
‘In a way,’ Barrowman went on, ‘you could actually look at [Leggott and Bornholdt] as being foundation points for what’s flowed on since then. The process-oriented and the lyric-oriented.’
These two camps, in many ways, reflect regional as well as aesthetic differences. What Barrowman terms the ‘process-oriented’, loosely associated with the Auckland region, has strong connections with North American and Australian avant-gardes, for whom ‘content’ (or ‘story’, or ‘scene’, or anything else with a direct relation to a real or imagined world) is subordinate to the generative principles of composition. In Ya-Wen Ho’s chapbook last edited [insert time here] (2012), single words bridge illogical gaps between clauses:
Try not to detonate the sleeping
dogs_lie on surfboards which men shall ride towards
comprehension_is an act of love and
Labour_and National run in elections which may or
may not be
Sam Sampson’s cerebral Halcyon Days (2014) pays close attention to form and space, such as where a photograph of geese in V-formation provides the shape for the poems on the following pages. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s Autobiography of a Marguerite (2014) shows affinity with Gertrude Stein and the ‘Language poets’ of the United States, employing a kind of deranged grammar and syntax, in boxes of prose poetry, to foreground the materiality of language: ‘What we choose to digest. She was fed by her. Heavy, severe, arduous, pouring, bodyguard. Heavy (you must eat or you’ll be weak). Baked, sugared, fried, mostly, vastly, brightly, generally. My mother, broken sun inside the teacup…’
The traditions on which these poetries build tend to destabilise the notion of an ‘authentic voice’, and to disturb both the logic of the phrase and the logic between phrases. But by far the majority of poetry written in New Zealand falls, I would say, under what Barrowman broadly terms the ‘lyric-oriented’—in particular, an anecdotal, even chatty, lyric, strongly situated in scenes of domestic life. The identification of this style with the Wellington region owes in part to the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand’s oldest Creative Writing programme (founded by Bill Manhire in 2001), and in part to the influence of major poets who call Wellington home—Jenny Bornholdt, Kate Camp, James Brown, Hinemoana Baker, and Manhire himself—but its influence is too pervasive to be associated with one region alone.
Many of the poems in Ashleigh Young’s Magnificent Moon (2012) narrate a scene that would be recognisable as an ordinary snippet of daily life in New Zealand—a family swim, having lunch, watching TV—were it not for the uncanny variable that throws the realism out of joint:
They’re holding the Olympics on the lawn outside our house.
A bearded man does a hopping run
and then heaves a javelin into the air.
The camera follows its shuddering arc.
In the next shot, my father is on the ground
writhing around with the javelin sticking out of his back.
My mother marches into the scene
all efficiency in an umpire’s uniform
and pulls out a measuring tape. My father
tries to get her attention by writhing more vigorously…
In ‘Pronoun Rain’, a poem from Bill Nelson’s Memorandum of Understanding (2016), the same anecdotal impulse is steered toward an introspective language game:
I swish away the air. I sit here.
This is Wellington, I insist this is
my puddle on a stick, my wet foot
sandwich. I walk to Brooklyn
all this takes is one step after another
and you’re there. I mean I’m here
you’re there. This is what the air
will do, fuzzy brain, impending rain…
E.M. Forster famously described fiction as a country bordered by the mountains of history, the mountains of poetry, and the sea. While Young and Nelson might be said to be situated where the poetic ranges meet the shore, other contemporary poets are exploring the hinterland between poetry and history, through a new kind of documentarian poetic that incorporates, variously, biography (Chris Price, Brief Lives, 2006), memoir (Lynn Jenner, Lost and Gone Away, 2015), criminal investigation (Chris Tse, How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, 2015), and historical portraiture (Anna Jackson, I, Clodia, 2014). Amy Brown’s vast post-secular epic, The Odour of Sanctity (2013), exerts over her storytelling an exacting formal control and high style; Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems (2015) turns inward, rehearsing the conditions of a highly personal reflection.
Of course, the ‘lyric’ is a broad brush, and the ‘lyric-oriented’, broader still. When I asked Auckland University Press editor Anna Hodge to describe the contemporary poetry scene in New Zealand, she replied: ‘pluralistic, diverse, broad, inclusive, healthy, vibrant, supportive, unsettled, often and strangely unacademic, currently uninterested in canon-building, nonconfrontational, un-dogmatic, only lightly critical, ambitious, innovative, hopeful’.
Poet John Dennison, in a recent interview with the Scottish magazine The Dark Horse, finds a ‘certain happy homogeneity’ in New Zealand lyric poetry today, but worries that ‘the stakes are low’. The problem, he believes, is that in the drift toward ‘the fiction of self-expression (“finding my voice”), the celebration of private epiphanies and of unarresting, mundane-yet-luminous observations’, New Zealand poetry has forsaken ‘the question of the poet’s social function’.
Dennison’s debut collection Otherwise (2015) hearkens back to earlier generations of New Zealand poetry, demonstrating continuity with Allen Curnow’s formalism and channeling James K. Baxter’s bardic religiosity toward critical investigations of Pākehā secular culture and its contradictions—spiritual bankruptcy, for example, and environmental devastation. Dennison calls for what he terms ‘the answerable poem’, one that ‘is responsible to one or other group, and which seeks to go beyond private or immanent satisfactions’.
How does this challenge—making the New Zealand idiom more ‘answerable’ to social and political realities—resonate in the context of Māori and Pasifika writing and its reception? The poet Jessica Hansell (aka Coco Solid) has expressed ambivalence toward the celebration of a National Poetry Day in New Zealand, specifically its tendency to monumentalise the past at the expense of indigenous history and culture. For her, simply ‘to pose a question about inclusivity… in creative communities’ is to become ‘comically visible and accountable’, and this exposure is a risk that few are willing to take. She suggested to me that this might have as much to do with ‘selective memory’ as it does with a cultural aversion to critique: ‘The rules of engagement here subtly dictate that some oral and literary traditions are precious, just not the ones that go back thousands of years.’
The difficulty of breaching these subjects in public discussion does not preclude gentle subversion in the poems themselves. Robert Sullivan’s cheeky revision of Dennis Glover’s well-known refrain ‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle’, from ‘The Magpies’, reclaims a native birdsong: ‘Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps sir?’ (Shout Ha! to the Sky, 2010).
And Selina Tusitala Marsh, in her wry poem ‘Acronym’, employs Pākehā nomenclature to wilfully misinterpret her own intentions in Fast Talkin’ PI (2009): does it stand for ‘Politically Incorrect’? ‘Private Investigator’? ‘Parallel Interface’? ‘Phase I’? (Marsh, incidentally, was appointed Commonwealth Poet for 2016 and commissioned to write a poem called ‘Unity’; Marsh performed this at the Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey in March for Her Majesty the Queen.)
‘This is an exciting time for indigenous writers,’ poet Courtney Sina Meredith told me, ‘because we have [Pasifika poet] David Eggleton at the helm of Landfall and here at the Manukau Institute of Technology we’re coming up to the release of our fourth IKA’—a literary and arts journal with an explicit mandate to showcase diverse voices.
Meredith’s own Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick (2012) borrows from both spoken word and lyric traditions. She points to two anthologies of contemporary Polynesian poems in English, Whetu Moana (2003) and Mauri Ola (2010), as ‘pivotal works … they opened up a world of Polynesian poets on the page for me.’ Paula Green echoes Meredith’s enthusiasm. ‘The vitality of poetry projects in South Auckland,’ she told me, ‘steered by figures such as Grace Taylor, is spreading nationwide.’ Taylor, a spoken word poet and playwright, is co-founder of the South Auckland Poets Collective and the Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement, organising workshops and high-profile youth slams.
Two themes came up again and again in my conversations with New Zealand poets, publishers, and reviewers. On the one hand, that the friendly populism and industrious spirit so often attributed to the New Zealand character is central to the country’s poetry economies as well; on the other, that a rigorous critical discourse is lacking. Since relocating to Melbourne a few years ago, Amy Brown has realised that ‘the collegial conduct of individuals’ and ‘the cohesion of New Zealand’s poetry scene, balanced with its variety, is a rare and lovely thing.’ But this ‘various and inclusive’ character, as poet Tim Upperton put it, ‘can lapse into a kind of uncritical approval’; he believes that ‘a more robust critical culture is more necessary now than ever.’ He was quick to qualify, however, that by ‘more robust’ he didn’t mean ‘more negative’.
Is it possible to reconcile a culture of inclusive pluralism with a culture of more ambitious critique? However New Zealand poets choose to answer that question, one thing is certain: the sheer proliferation of poetry initiatives in recent years—start-up publishing outfits, reading series, community workshops, collectives, dedicated online spaces, and of course the Poet Laureateship—demonstrate great appetite and enthusiasm for New Zealand poetry, not only what is, but what is yet to come.
Steven Toussaint is an American-born poet who is the 2016 University of Waikato Writer-in-Residence. He has published a chapbook, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014), and a full-length collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Society, 2015).